The play Hamlet is a problems. Discuss

Shakespeare has not removed the superfluity. “Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition.” Shakespeare, Eliot thinks, must have passed through a terrible emotional crisis while writing the play. And hence this slovenliness.

There are so many approaches to the highly complex character of Hamlet. The character of Hamlet itself is a problem which remains insoluble.

The play itself is also a problem. In 3800 lines Shakespeare has dovetailed so many incidents, all of which could be transformed into separate plays. As R. S. Iyengar rightly points out: War with Norway, Fortinbras; Civil War, Laertes; murder and usurpation, Claudius; adultery and incest, Gertrude, spying, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Eavesdropping, Polonius; decoying, Ophelia; Play within the play, the Mouse- trap; foul-play, double crossing; madness, half-madness, worldly wisdom; ambassadors, guards, grave-diggers; Inquisition and Impeachment, in the closet- scene; love-lust, friendship-feigning; supernatural soliciting; mob excitement, soldiers marching, priestly petulance; fighting on a pirate-ship, scuffle in a grave, a ‘friendly’ fencing-match; seeming and being, Claudius at prayer; ….. there really seems to be no end.”

This diversity baffles the readers and the audience. Madness of Hamlet is another vexed question. In spite of Hamlet’s own assertion-“I’ll put an antic disposition,” there are critics who argue that he was really mad, at least, on certain occasions. George Farren, for example, says:

“I do not maintain that Hamlet was uniformly deranged or that his malady disqualified him altogether for the exercise of his reason, but that he was liable to paroxysms of mental disorder.”

A person predisposed to gaiety, Hamlet received three rude shocks-the death of his father the hasty marriage of his mother, and the loss of all hopes of inheriting the throne, and was mentally unhinged. The shocks contributed to the instability of intellect. He constantly brooded over the Ghost, and was in a state of melancholy. Even before he knew of the murder of his father, he was thinking of suicide, which was the outcome of mental imbalance. When left alone, he was indulging in self reproaches and expressing his wish to put an end to himself. His outrage on Laertes at the graveyard, and his treatment of Ophelia also confirm the conviction that he was mad. Allardyce Nicol Bucknill, Kellogg and Conolly also hold the view that Hamlet was mad. According to Nicoll, Hamlet’s madness is clearly manifest in some of the scenes. But the madness has a touch of wisdom and a method. He is not uniformly deranged. But even in scenes, where he is not mad, he indulges in too much introspection, which lends support to the view that he has morbidity. Madness is a term having a wide connotation. But all will agree that when a person loses momentarily or permanently, all control of himself, utters words and executes actions which spring not from his reason but from a part of his brain which has gained dominance over other faculties and when there is a marked loss of mental balance, he may be called mad. Judged from this point of view Hamlet was certainly mad, particularly, when he met the ghost, or in the scene of the ‘play within the play’ when Claudius cried out for light, or when he jumped into the grave protesting his love for Ophelia, not to be beaten by Laertes.

Bucknill, Kellogg and Conolly have gone one step ahead, and passed their verdict that Hamlet is mad. They have referred to certain instances in support of their contention, e.g.. has disturbed sleep and nightmares and his treatment of Ophelia.

But most of the critics today refuse to believe that Hamlet is made. “If Hamlet was really made in the story,” says Bradley, “he would cease to be a tragic character.” And Bradley is right. The tragic hero must accept full responsibility for his action-a thing which a mad man cannot. Dowden thinks that Hamlet assumes madness to conceal the disturbance of his mind. His emotional stress, his excitability may betray him when he is always surrounded by enemies. “To be in presence of all, and yet to be hidden-to be intelligible to himself, and a perplexity to others, to be within reach of everyone, and to be himself inaccessible, that would be an enviable position. Madness possesses exquisite immunities and privileges. From this safe vantage of unintelligibility he can delight himself by uttering his whole mind and sending forth his words among the words of others, with their meaning disguised, as he himself must be, clothed in an antic garb of parable, dark saying which speaks the truth in a mystery.”

Stopford Brooke thinks that Shakespeare has never intended to represent Hamlet as mad or even verging on madness. All men of genius are mad, and Hamlet is mad only because of his genius. Hamlet has the analytic reason, with which is coupled extraordinary imaginative power.

Snider says that Hamlet is never so mad as not to be responsible. He has weaknesses, and no man is infallible. If Hamlet is mad, three fourths of mankind deserve to be dispatched to the madhouse. Even if his reasoning is, at times, unsound, we cannot make out a case for insanity. Hamlet is intelligent and witty enough to befool not only the men but also the women. Claudius is the only man who, because of his guilty conscience, a suspicion about Hamlet. Hamlet is perfectly sane when one or in the company of his friend, Horatio. The conclusion; therefore, is irresistible that he wears a mask and laughs in his naves. Madness, therefore, ensures his safety.

Lowell in his Shakespeare Once More does not accept the theory of mad- ness. A shrewd psychologist and metaphysician, Hamlet is a close observer of the people around him. He analyses himself as he analyses others. All the characters are under the keen scalpel of analysis. “If you deprive Hamlet of reason, there is no truly tragic motive left. If Hamlet is irresponsible, the whole play is a chaos.” As Hamlet subjects everyone to scrutiny, the King also scrutinises Hamlet. The King says:

“Nor what he spake, though it lack’d form a little,

Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul

O’er which his melancholy sits on brood;

 And I do doubt the hatch and disclose

Will be some danger: which for to prevent,

I have in quick determination

Thus set it down; he shall with speed to England.”

Hamlet’s acting becomes over-acting, and the King can not be imposed upon.

Some say Hamlet is mad, and some say that his madness is a mere pretance. Both are extreme views. There is no denying the fact that Hamlet is disturbed and unhinged because of the series of rude shocks he has received Occasionally he indulges in emotional outbursts and vituperation, when he does border on madness. The communion with the ghost aggravates the situation. He then thinks that his “disposition [is] horridly shaken with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.”

Hence the conclusion of another section of critics is that Hamlet is for the most part sane. He is depressed and melancholy and yet mostly he retains his artistic sense, his ready wit, his imaginative vision. But at times as he himself says: “he is punished with a sore distraction, is passion’s slave.” At times he suffers, as Dover Wilson points out “paroxysms of passions which while they last are akin to insanity.” In Act I, Scene 5, the revelation of his father’s ghost unhinges him, when he is resolved to eliminate from his mind everything except his father’s command. He meets Horatio when he utters “wild and whirling” words; in Act III, Scene 4, when Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost, unseen by his mother, he is not in his normal state; in Act III, Scene I, Hamlet is in a paroxysm of passion when he speaks daggers to Ophelia : Earlier Hamlet appears in Ophelia’s closet when he looks deranged. Ophelia describes his condition:

“He took me by the wrist and held me hard

Then goes he to the length of all his arm;

And with his other hand thus o’er his brow,

He falls to such perusal of my face

As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so,

As last a little shaking of mine arm.

And thrice his head thus waving up and down.

He raised a sigh so piteous and profound

As it did seem to shatter all his bulk

And end his being.”

Involved in a deep emotional crisis, Hamlet has come to his beloved. He wants to be sure if Ophelia is a carbon copy of his mother. In the ‘Nunnery scene’. Hamlet seems to discharge the vitriolic wrath and volcanic stuff he is made of. He has nothing but loathing for women, whole name is frailty. Dover Wilson suggests that Hamlet has overheard the plot of Polonius and Claudius- “I will loose my daughter to him,” and concludes that Ophelia has been stationed to be a decoy. He has come with high hopes:

“Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.”

Ophelia unknowingly rallies him’:

“For to the noble mind,

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

The prince’s presents and love-letters are returned. Hamlet believes his beloved to be a spy, incapable of truth and honesty. “Ha, ha, are you honest ?”” is the question of a man, who has received the shock of his life. We do not know if this savage rudeness is an expression of madness or an expression of his disgust at hypocrisy. Or, should we imagine that the words are meant for Polonius and Claudius, who, he is confident, are lying in ambush to pounce upon the prey?

The behaviour of Hamlet in Act III, Scene 2 after the play-scene has also given rise to a good deal of critical comments. The King, very much upset. Leaves the court and calls for more light. Hamlet watches the King’s discomfiture with hysterical glee and even begins to sing. Here Hamlet is not in the presence of his enemies and is with Horatio, his trusted friend and yet he is emotionally unbalanced.

In Act III, scene 4, Hamlet has an interview with his mother, when his only purpose is to awaken the dormant conscience of his mother. And yet his mother notices a murderous impulse in him. Hamlet himself has said:

“Let me be cruel, not unnatural;

I will speak daggers to her, but use none.”

Presumably Hamlet is not in his normal metal condition. The Queen de- scribes his mental state:

“Mad as the sea and wind when both contend

Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit.

Behind the arras hearing something stir,

Whips out his rapier, crises. ‘A rat, a rat!”

And in this brinish apprehension kills

The unseen good old man.”

We presume that the Queen may have exaggerated in her bid to defend her son. But the fact that Hamlet is passing through an emotional storm is inescapable.

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In Act V, Scene I, Hamlet leaps into the grave of Ophelia at her funeral and exclaims, “I am Hamlet the Dane.” This sort of swashbuckling is least expected from a sane man. Whatever else it is, it can not be called a pose.

On several occasions Hamlet indulges in outbursts of uncontrollable passion, some of which are savage, some delirious, and some bitter and sarcastic. Barring these occasions, Hamlet feigns madness. From his detailed conversation with the advice to the players we can easily conclude that Hamlet is a great actor. He can, therefore, play the part of a mad man convincingly. The king and his hirelings have tried their utmost to pluck out the heart of the mystery, but to no purpose.

Whatever may be the momentary aberrations, Hamlet’s intellectual power and wit are, intact, in the company of Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the actors. In spite of his emotional outburst in the presence of his mother, he says:

“My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time

And makes as healthful music; it is not madness

That I have uttered; bring me to the test,

And I the matter will reward; which madness

Would gambol from.

There are critics, who in their attempt to prove Hamlet’s madness, quote:

“Who does it then? His madness: if’t be so,

Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d.”

This view is open to criticism, Bradley knows that Hamlet could not have said anything else to Laertes. “What other defance can we wish Hamlet to have made ? I can think of none. He can not tell the truth. He can not say to Laertes, ‘I meant to stab the King, not your father.’ He can not explain why he was unkind to Ophelia. Even on the false supposition that he is referring simply to his behaviour at the grave, he can hardly say, ‘you ranted so abominably that you put me into a towering passion,.’ Whatever he said, it would have to be more or less untrue.”



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